‘Keep Your Pretty Head Low’

Well, it’s been quite month. Of course, for me, every month is “quite a month”—but this one, if it were a physical rather than an emotional roller-coaster, would rank among the top ten amusement attractions. It might even possibly be shut down as a danger to life and limb. I must indeed be this tall to be on it. If I were less so, there is the likelihood that I would fly off into space. I’d have the satisfaction of passing billionaire men-children Musk and Bezos in my flight, waving as I look askance at their squander.

But lo, I have not slipped the surly bonds of Earth. Gravity, if anything, clutches me rudely—and not just gravity. The 800-pound gorilla begs to be addressed. I am profoundly honored to be chosen a 2022 Jazz Journalists’ Association Jazz Hero but I have trouble seeing myself as particularly heroic. I’ve kept this paper going through hard times, working even when I’ve been sick or distracted—and I won’t say when that has been, but perhaps the reader can guess. I don’t rattle my tin cup enough, which may in a dim light pass for altruism.

To address any possible imputations of virtue let me say first that I don’t know how I could do anything but keep the paper going. That’s part of the whole thing about running a paper. At some point I realized I wasn’t the dilettante that I had always pretended to be. And I have the benefit of a reliable desktop publishing program to ease the process of monthly publication.

Just today, in one of my fleeting moments of serenity, I glanced at the most recent edition of the Smithsonian Magazine, and was amazed to discover that one publisher has a far more basic operation than I do. When my computer is less than cooperative, I occasionally joke that it’s time to ditch all this digital junk and get a linotype machine. And here I read of one Dean Coombs, publisher of the Saguache Crescent, whose weekly paper is laid out from slugs of hot lead linotype. The machine, over 100 years old, is the last of its kind in use today.

Linotype machines, Anthony Hordern and Sons department store, c. 1935, gelatin silver print, from Anthony Hordern and Sons pictorial collection, [https://collection.sl.nsw.gov.au/record/9Na6DEWY/J8zyeDKjyXg47 PXE 1103/Vol. 3/Boxes 1-3]

I don’t envy him. At 70, he may be the last person alive who can operate one of these monsters—and no one is left who knows how to repair them. It’s an obsolete—though ingenious and in some measure elegant—technology. The inventor, Ottmar Merganthaler, was a genuine hero to printers. Prior to its invention in the 1880s, every letter had to be set by hand (as Gutenberg did it). But compared to photo-offset, it was certainly the gorilla in the printing plant. Today, the miracle of desktop publishing allows even a clumsy amateur to assume the mantle of Publisher. (I’ll give you a moment to finish your thought.)

But no—I wouldn’t swap with him. Despite the magnitude of difficulty of his job over mine, he did say a few things that resonate with me deeply, though it may seem less than heroic of me to admit it. “A newspaper is not an easy thing to get out of,” Coombs says. “I have one guy who prepaid his subscription for seven years. What would I do? Call him and give him his money back?” Yes, exactly. You just can’t.

And no apprentices have come forward to take over the publication—nor are any likely to do so. “To hand the paper off, I’d have to say, ‘You’ll never go anywhere. There will be no vacations.’ That’s not the way people want to live.” No, there might be two applicants for the job: Gutenberg and Sisyphus.

If I have to admit to any valor, it was likely taking on the obligation of this paper. At times it seems to have been a vainglorious decision. I approached the adventure as would an 18-year-old boy rushing into battle to rout the foe, without a notion of what he was getting himself into. Incredibly, I’ve made this paper work for 76 issues now. I still can’t easily wrap my mind around what I have to do each month. I push along—often until the small hours—until it’s done. When it emerges as a complete entity, I’m just as floored as anyone else.

Even so, when I first heard about the JJA award, I couldn’t help but put a song from my youth up on Facebook. I opted for the original Paper Lace version of “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero.” The Bo Donaldson US cover is the one I remembered, but the UK recording had the line, “keep your pretty head low.” That wasn’t going to fly in my junior high school crowd. But I guess we’re all pretty until we’re not.

Is it heroic to admit that I could use some help? I’m not that rugged Colorado linotyper, after all. At times I’ll admit I’m overwhelmed doing this job. I’m just a guy too busy to pass the hat as often as I should. I can submit my overdue invoices after the paper is at press, but I have a devil of a time sending out all those renewal postcards. That’s all I’ll say on the matter.

I’ve managed to write my whole column without talking about the other thrills on my personal amusement park ride, which is a blessing. Suffice it just to say that there is never a dull moment even if I wish there was. A true hero, jazz or standard, needs to know when to shut up.

Andy Senior is the Publisher of The Syncopated Times and on occasion he still gets out a Radiola! podcast for our listening pleasure.

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